American screenwriter and director Joss Whedon. (JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
For fans of Joss Whedon, the American screenwriter behind countless cult classics and big-budget blockbusters was always something of a “god”.
Whedon, after all, is everywhere. A staple of many a generations’ childhood, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Toy Story and The Avengers, Firefly and Serenity, Justice League and The Cabin in the Woods.
Many of the filmmaker’s shows, none more so than Buffy, have inspired legions of fans who connect deeply to his empowering characters, often dogged-down outsiders forced to fight against supernatural horrors.
But last year, Charisma Carpenter, who played the self-absorbed, whip-smart teen Cordelia Chase on Buffy and Angel, accused Whedon of “repeated” abuse against her.
Among the litany of rattling allegations, Whedon “abused his power” and created “hostile” and “toxic” workplace environments before “unceremoniously firing” Carpenter after she gave birth.
It came after Justice League star Jay Fisher described his conduct as “gross, abusive, unprofessional and completely unacceptable” and Gal Gadot said he “threatened” her on set.
Nearly a year since Carpenter shared her account, Whedon publicly responded for the first time in a lengthy New York Magazine article published Monday (17 January).
Whedon, 57, adamantly denied any wrongdoing on the sets of Buffy and the Justice League, saying he never “threatened” anyone.
“I yelled, and sometimes you had to yell,” he said of Carpenter. “This was a very young cast and it was easy for everything to turn into a cocktail party.”
He does, however, believe he’s “one of the nicer showrunners that’s ever been”.
They get tattoos of wooden stakes, attend conventions celebrating all things Whedon and still to this day debate whether Buffy should end up with Angel or Spike.
But to even the most hardcore LGBT+ Buffy and Angel fans, Whedon may be anything but “nice”.
In conversations with PinkNews, queer Buffy buffs shared how they are hoping to do what many Harry Potter fans similarly have: find a way to distance the art from its artist.
Harrison Brocklehurst, 25, London
Buffy has long been a defining factor in the life of Harrison Brocklehurst, a 25-year-old staff writer for student outlet The Tab.
“I’ve watched it and obsessed over it since before I should have even been old enough to know what it is,” he said. “I had the video games, the action figures, the box sets, the books – you name it.
“When Charisma spoke out against Joss I felt crushed like many fans, and further crushed still with the allegations that followed.
“I think with a show like Buffy where the moral compass and the feminist themes are so impactful and special it’s especially devastating to learn that the brain behind it all isn’t deserving of the pedestal I lived my whole life putting him on.”
The sagas implicating Whedon are a reminder, Brocklehurst said, of just how dangerous it can be to idolise someone. To treat them like royalty.
“I’m never going to look back on Buffy differently in terms of the story and legacy – Joss wasn’t the only writer who made that show great, and Jane Espensen and Martin Noxon were responsible for some of the best episodes in the series.
“It’s unfair to the hard work and talent of everyone else involved to discredit Buffy‘s legacy because of Joss’ wrongdoing.
“I think it’s just a sad and hard pill to swallow that behind the scenes of a show that is so positive things were toxic and abusive – it ruins the image you build up for yourself where a cast and crew who seem so close have more sinister things going on behind closed doors.”
Cal, 26, Egham
Cal, a 26-year-old pansexual studying for a PhD in cyber-security, said that it’s Whedon’s skill at translating trauma in a mindful way to the screen that drew many fans in.
But they – among many others – have struggled since to reconcile their adoration for the programmes that celebrated difference with the accusations that have churned around its creator.
“I no longer have any respect for him as a man or a person,” the student, based in Egham said. “But I can’t deny that his artistic output helped a lot of people.
“Unfortunately, that time is behind him and unless he radically changes his ways and does some intense reflection, I doubt he ever will again.”
Cal knows that many Buffy fans do – that the story is not just Whedon’s. It was the cast and the countless others part of the show, which aired on the WB and UPN from 1997 to 2003.
“It was Sarah Michelle Geller and her fantastic dual portrayal as a strong, indomitable woman but also as a teenage girl at school who was thrust into this,” he said.
“Of Giles and his fatherly mentor position, guiding and helping a group of people who became a found family. Willow, discovering herself and the darker ways that intense love can present.
“There were fantastic stories and moments, but those weren’t due to Joss Whedon so much as they were the actors.
“I think that Anthony Head [Rupert Giles] is a much better example of who to idolise than Joss Whedon, considering how he’s looked out for fans in the past.”
Adam Lowe, 33, Manchester
For Adam Lowe, a 33-year-old working in finance for a travel company, rewatching Buffy in light of the allegations makes for a rattling watch.
“He’s someone I’ve admired since I was a child from his work on Toy Story, to Buffy, to The Avengers,” the Manchester local said.
“I’ve watched Buffy and Angel countless times and he’s always had a particular ‘enjoyment’ about his treatment and abuse of female characters… and now watching it again knowing what we know and trying to understand what the cast must have been subjected to for all those years to someone like Joss, it’s just vile.”
“And I do definitely watch it now with a sense of discomfort knowing, as much as I try to just enjoy what is literally my favourite piece of media of all time.”
Pennie Varvarides, 33, London
Like so many, Pennie Varvarides, a 33-year-old nutrition coach living in London, grew up with Buffy. In their younger years, Whedon was something of a “god” to them.
“I was that kid who knew the entire once more with feeling episode off by heart and who met most of the Buffy stars at various events,” they beamed.
“I even met Joss Whedon once outside a theatre in London when Alyson Hannigan was in When Harry Met Sally…. I’m embarrassed to admit this now but I remember feeling like I’d met a god.”
In a wrenchingly similar story, Varvarides found the repeated controversies surrounding Whedon gutting. His recent and long-awaited response to them was demoralising, she said, but it was almost to be expected.
“He’s just like most cis, white men: disappointing,” they said. “Every new revelation of his terrible behaviour over time weighs heavy on my love for the show, to the point where I actually just don’t watch it as much as I used to.
“And this was my comfort show. I’ve done a full rewatch every year for as long as I can remember but in the last couple of years, it’s not been happening.
“His response is unsurprising, to be honest. He doesn’t think he did anything wrong. Because his behaviour is very much in line with how other rich white men in his position have always behaved.
“He’s such a disappointment. But I realise I should never have expected anything else.”